Wednesday, 09 Jan 2019

Written by Elliott Karstadt

The Power of Words

Parashat Bo pictureIn the book he wrote with his daughter Fania, Amos Oz (z”l) describes Judaism as ‘not a bloodline, but a text line’: ‘Jewish continuity has always hinged on uttered and written words, on an expanding maze of interpretations, debates, and disagreements and on a unique human rapport. In synagogue, at school and most of all in the home, it has always involved two or three generations deep in conversation’ (Jews and Words). In similar vein, the great historian and Talmud scholar, Daniel Boyarin, describes our textual tradition – the stories and laws of our Torah, the disputations and examples of the Talmud – as a ‘travelling homeland’ – arguing that, in the absence of a physical place to call home, the Jewish exiles in Babylonia made the Talmud into their home (A Travelling Homeland: The Babylonian Talmud as Diaspora).

According to Jewish mysticism, the creation of the world was preceded by the creation of the alphabet. And many of us will know the story of the child who is unable to pray because he doesn’t know the words but is able, nonetheless, to communicate with God simply by reciting the aleph bet.

The Medieval Jewish philosopher and commentator, Moses Maimonides, argued that although Jews continued to pray for the restoration of Zion, they should not desire the restarting of animal sacrifice in the Temple. His explanation of sacrifice was that it was the first of three stages of human beings’ interaction with God – each of which was an improvement on the last: 1. Animal sacrifice; 2. Prayer with words; 3. Intellectual Contemplation of God. Whether we will ever achieve this final and (for Maimonides) perfect interaction with God is debatable – for the moment we are still in the prayer paradigm. Prayer and words are the way we seek interaction with God (however we might understand God).  Maimonides was arguing that the Temples were destroyed in order to move us on to the next level – away from 1 (violence) and towards 2 (words).

For the last few months, I have been teaching this week’s parashah to a Bat Mitzvah student. Almost every week she bristles at the idea that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart – why does God make things difficult, creating the need for more plagues – more violence? Similarly, we might ask why, when he is offered the chance to take all the Israelites out of Egypt while allowing Pharaoh to retain their livestock, does Moses refuse and insist that the livestock go with? ‘Not a hoof shall remain behind,’ says Moses, since the Israelites need to sacrifice to God in the wilderness (Exodus 10.25-26). These events make sense if we think about them in terms of the movement from violence to words. The Israelites are leaving Egypt – a place in which violence is the main means of communication – to freedom, in which words are of paramount importance.

And if you look for it, this paradigm – of moving away from violence and towards words – is one you can begin to find everywhere. Indeed, I’m beginning to think that it might function as a kind of meta-narrative to the Torah. I shall just briefly give three examples:

  1. The saga of Joseph, whose story we have just finished telling, is one that begins with violence and ends with words. At the beginning of the story, Joseph’s brothers are unable to speak with him about their jealousy. This leads to them quickly deciding to kill him – though they eventually change their minds and instead sell him into slavery. By the end of the story, once they have become reunited, Joseph’s brothers are able to speak to him, fearful of his retribution, but willing to use words rather than violence.
  2. Twice in the Torah Moses hits a rock in order to get water out of it. The first time it is because God tells him to hit it – the Israelites are just out of Egypt, and in need of water, and God instructs Moses to hit a rock in the presence of the ‘elders of Israel’ (Exodus 17.5-6). I think this reference to the ‘elders’ is significant. It indicates that this kind of action is what is expected; having just come out of slavery, the Israelites are living within a paradigm of violence, in which hitting things is of ultimate effectiveness. The second time Moses strikes the rock, however, is in a very different context. Much time has passed, and those ‘elders of Israel’ are dwindling, and God expects that the Israelites are forgetting the ways of violence. Hence, this time God tells Moses to speak to the rock – putting words over violence. But, in his hubris, Moses ignores God’s instruction. Perhaps the harshness of his punishment reflects the importance of the point – he has failed to abandon the violent ways of Egypt (Numbers 20.1-12).
  3. The Hebrew name for the final book of the Torah, the Book of Deuteronomy, is Devarim – ‘words’! As we journey through the Torah we are literally journeying away from the power of Egyptian violence and towards the power of words.

Now, of course I’m not saying there is a perfect fit here. Objectors will point towards the many commands of violence that are contained in Deuteronomy – and the acts of violence that continue in the Biblical narrative and throughout history. But this simply reflects the reality of life – that it is imperfect. Torah is not descriptive, but aspirational. Ultimately, patterns like this might push us, slowly but surely, towards a better outcome in the future. An outcome we come to through talking and listening, rather than violence and building walls.


Elliott Karstadt

January 2019




The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.